Book Review: David Berman’s “The Portable February”

portablefebruary200Though he’s best known for fronting the late, great Silver Jews, sardonic, cerebral country rock isn’t David Berman’s only talent. He’s also a celebrated poet (see 1996’s dry Actual Air) and cartoonist whose drawings have popped up in the margins of The Baffler and adorned art-gallery walls. The Portable February (Drag City), his first published collection of illustrations, suggests that inkwell Berman isn’t far removed from plectrum Berman; the instruments of creation may differ, but the same bitterly amused tone suffuses both endeavors. February‘s 90-plus doodles range from crushingly obvious (the protester holding a sign reading “giants” enclosed by a circle with a line drawn through it, as a giant boot approaches from above) to gleefully inane sketches titled, perhaps, to impart meaning (“The World We Had,” “Irrational 15th Century Battle Scenes”) to oblique cartoons that demand serious interpretive input from the reader. What finally emerges is a bit droll New Yorker, a bit other-dimensional The Far Side and a bit psycho-social Steven, all at once: the anonymous “A Place In New Jersey” wearing its sketchiness all too literally; one animal remarking to another “Premise? I got premise,” when there’s no premise to speak of; a menagerie of rings and trophies; a raving, distended portrait captioned “If you were New Wave in Cincinnati in 1983, I probably haunted you occasionally.” February‘s genius lies in how its rudimentary squiggles manage to haunt again and again, each time in a slightly new way.

—Raymond Cummings

Film At 11: Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy

Dave Douglas is a modern jazz trumpeter who’s played with John Zorn and collaborated with Tom Waits; he’s a multi-genre (he’s been involved with spoken-word and dance, klezmer and avant-garde), multimedia kind of guy. Filmmakers Jem Cohen (Fugazi’s Instrument) and Christoph Green (Wilco’s Ashes Of American Flags) made three shorts about Douglas and his band, Brass Ecstasy, working in the studio on Spirit Moves (Greenleaf, out today). The album features eight original compositions alongside arrangements of songs by Hank Williams, Rufus Wainwright and Otis Redding. MAGNET has been debuting a clip each Tuesday night—here’s part three:

From The Desk Of Bob Mould: Hipster Runoff

bobmouldlogoBob Mould is a man always on the lookout for a new challenge. After Hüsker Dü (one of the most celebrated rock bands ever) folded in 1988, Mould would helm another powerful trio, Sugar, before beginning a fascinating, ongoing series of solo releases that have ranged from introspective to danceable, from melodic to nearly chaotic. The enigmatic guitar (and cultural) hero is finishing up what promises to be a fascinating memoir to be published next year and has just released a rock-solid solo disc, Life And Times. Read our new Q&A with him and earlier ones from 2008 and 2002. Mould will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.

hipsterrunoff542Mould: Marshall McLuhan was one of the great minds of the late-20th century. McLuhan accurately predicted a new cultural experience, where the long-standing concept of visual culture (cave paintings, religious iconography, visual media art, newspapers) would be replaced by electronic media, which would create a “global village.” A collective identity created by and connected with information that floats through our lives in a transparent and unfiltered manner. Cool media: Click it, and get a reward. Morphine drip. Following in McLuhan’s footsteps is Carles. Who is Carles? I don’t know Carles. I don’t know anyone who knows Carles. Carles is the architect of the tower of insight known as Hipster Runoff. If you haven’t experienced his surgical wit, here’s a few examples that will get you up to speed.

Exhibit A: “I wonder if M.I.A. has enough reach to impact an election. Maybe if the election was in Sri Lanka/Brooklyn, but I am afraid that it will be a difficult for her to sway the vote of people who don’t listen to indie/mainstream rap. I feel like if I were a political candidate, and some sort of ‘zany minority with ties to terrorist groups’ supported me, I would say ‘thank u, but could u keep quiet.’”

Exhibit B: “Might film meaningful parts of our road trip, then make a ‘tour video’ with our most meaningful song in the background. This tour is going to be the start of something beautiful. Going to start working on T-shirt designs. Will probably have a bird, some sort of guitar, and something ‘natural’ with our band name written in a kewl font. Printed on American Appy shirts. Do yall know any annoying bands in ur local scene who think they are going to make it?”

Exhibit C: “Where does Animal Collective realistically sit in this hierarchy of critical acclaim vs. pop appeal vs. actually selling albums? I feel like they are sort of like a ‘really funny, progressive comedy that got cancelled from cable TV’ in band format, except they are a band so they don’t get ‘cancelled’—they get the opportunity to move forward become more authentic, letting their fan base ‘grow’ with them.”

In our post-modern, post-ironic, post-whatever inappropriate thought comes into your head on Facebook-world, Carles dissects societal trends with a clarity and cynicism that is usually acquired though an academic blend of sociology and marketing. The reader comments are sometimes questionable, but expected, when you give said post-whatevers a sharpie and a freshly painted surface. Combine those oft-tactless comments with the author’s racial missteps (which seem to be all the rage with the multi-cultural youth of today), and there is a potential for the train of thought to fly off the rails. More often than not, however, Carles nails it clean out of the ballpark. Meaningful and authentic.

MP3 At 3PM: Emily Wells

emilybw400Watching Emily Wells piece together a song brings to mind a disciplined gourmet chef at work. The L.A.-based Wells is a violin prodigy, and her music is equal parts eerie vocals and loop-upon-loop of violin (she used up to 21 violin tracks for some songs on her self-released EP, Dirty), topped with a few precisely measured xylophone phrases and a dash of ukulele. You must check out Wells’ unearthly cover of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”

“Symphony 6: Fair Thee Well & The Requiem Mix” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/Symphony6FairTheeWellAndTheRequiemMix.mp3

Lost & Found: Farmer Dave Scher

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As an addendum to our recent list of Lost Classics (a series of posts highlighting some of the best underrecognized and forgotten indie-rock albums released since MAGNET began publishing in 1993), we’ll continue to play catch-up with the artists we featured. Because you just never know when you’ll stumble across the former drummer for Velocity Girl.

When we attempted to update you on the further misadventures of Beachwood Sparks since the band’s last album (2001’s Once We Were Trees), it broke our imaginary copy of The Trouser Press Guide To ’00s Indie Rock. There were too many side projects and offshoot bands to keep track of. So we didn’t see this coming: Keyboardist/pedal steel guitarist Farmer Dave Scher just finished a tour supporting Jenny Lewis and will release solo debut Flash Forward To The Good Times (Kemado) on August 18. We’ve heard this album, and it is the stoned sum total of the beards worn by Carl Wilson, Willie Nelson, Devendra Banhart and Marvin Gaye. The fun never stops with tracks such as country/dub (you read that correctly) hoedown “Finnz Hammock,” which contains the following spoken-word mid-song exchange between Scher and an unnamed guest vocalist playing the part of Nikola Tesla:

Scher: Hey Mr. Tesla, what is that?
Tesla: This is my latest invention, the Spirit Machine.
Scher: What happens if I touch this—
Tesla: Don’t touch that… [sound of alarm clock ringing]
Scher: Here we go!

Then it quotes a line from “Iko Iko.” Unbelievably awesome.

The Over/Under: Big Star

bigstar535With Big Star best-of/rarities box Keep An Eye On The Sky slated for a September release, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and the late Chris Bell are about to enter the mainstream rock pantheon at last. Of course, Big Star has been a key reference point for three generations of indie and underground rockers. The band’s brief, highly romanticized narrative arc—Anglophile Memphis rockers set the bar for genius power pop, begin deconstructing the genre, then self-destruct before they can finish their third record—guaranteed Big Star’s canonization by alt-rock misfits, as well as that odd strain of culture vulture obsessed with watching talent implode. MAGNET wants to reexamine Chilton and Co.’s work in part because, though this is one of those cases where the music frequently does live up to the hype, for 30 years Big Star has unavoidably colored the way we hear the music. And despite a few post-mortem live releases and a handful of bootlegs both sublime and godawful, it’s in the limited studio recordings that Big Star’s glory lives or dies. So for this installment of the Over/Under, it’s to the studio albums we go, to give the mix one final stir before it hardens. (For more on Big Star, as well as Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, the Posies and many more, check out our special 2002 American power-pop issue.)

Continue reading “The Over/Under: Big Star”

From The Desk Of Bob Mould: D.C. After The Election

bobmouldlogoBob Mould is a man always on the lookout for a new challenge. After Hüsker Dü (one of the most celebrated rock bands ever) folded in 1988, Mould would helm another powerful trio, Sugar, before beginning a fascinating, ongoing series of solo releases that have ranged from introspective to danceable, from melodic to nearly chaotic. The enigmatic guitar (and cultural) hero is finishing up what promises to be a fascinating memoir to be published next year and has just released a rock-solid solo disc, Life And Times. Read our new Q&A with him and earlier ones from 2008 and 2002. Mould will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.

14thand-uMould: Living in D.C. for seven years now, I can safely say that the place has changed—considerably—in the past seven months. I currently live in the U Street neighborhood, which was the epicenter of the 1968 riots. In conjunction with a Shepard Fairey show at Irvine Contemporary this past fall, two Obama portraits appeared in the neighborhood: one at 14th and P Street NW and another at 14th and U Street NW. On election night, a group of us were gathered at my home, watching the state-by-state returns. At 10 p.m. EST, the California polls closed, and Obama was projected to win the state. In doing so, he clinched the race. Ninety seconds later, with the television at a decent volume, we could hear the celebrations beginning on the U Street Corridor. We stepped out to observe for a moment, turned back, locked up the house and joined in the night-long celebration—the epicenter being at 14th and U, under the watchful eye of the Obama portrait. I am not certain if Fairey or his people, when affixing the Obama Progress art upon that wall, knew the historical significance of 14th and U.

Anyhow, the changes: People seem friendlier than normal. There is an increased sense among the habitants, mainly those walking on the street, that there are actually other people living in D.C. For years, it felt like a “me” town, and lately, I sense a “we” arising. There are less SUVs racing through the streets at rush hour and more younger people taking mass transit, particularly the bus system, which has had major upgrades in he past three months. Staffers are shuffling through the flat parts of town on fixies. New eateries and wineries, many with a progressive slant, are opening up to serve these newest inhabitants. Two things that haven’t changed: the constant sirens and the mindless crime. My infrequent phone conversations tend to coincide with the passing caterwaul of various emergency vehicles. (As I type, there goes another one. No joke.) I sometimes think text messaging was invented solely for D.C. residents.

Jazz Notes: Vision Festival, Day 6

peterbell380bThis week, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers reports from the Vision Festival, the avant-garde jazz event in New York City.

As the 14th Vision Festival winds down, I’m struck by the array of artists whose creative work is considered avant-garde. A number of great musicians were hanging around this week, and the programming for Sunday night’s show was full of amazing talent. Trombonist/composer Steve Swell presented his trio Planet Dream for a matinee performance of utopian chamber jazz, showcasing an intimate collaboration between himself, saxophonist Rob Brown and Daniel Levin on cello. Swell’s compositions were smart and imaginative, but it was the gentle improvisatory aspects of this group that really came across.

Chicago free-jazz patriarch Fred Anderson (pictured) made a memorable, early-evening appearance, supported by his longtime associates and Vision Fest mainstays Hamid Drake and William Parker. Anderson is 80 years old, and his history with Chicago’s avant-garde community goes all the way back to the very first concert given by the AACM in the mid-’60s. On Sunday, Anderson found his way onto the stage, put his tenor saxophone to his lips and didn’t move again for the length of his segment. Behind Anderson, Drake shifted from hand drum to full kit while Parker dabbled with Eastern instruments before settling on his upright bass. This was highly emotive free jazz, echoing the spiritual works of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and the amazing set ended far too quickly. I guess that’s how you cater to geriatric jazzmen—keep their sets short and the audience wanting more.

Michele Rosewoman has kept Quintessence—an ever-shifting performance collective—together for more than 20 years, and she presented two new compositions. Straddling the line between modern classical and jazz, Rosewoman is a talented pianist/composer, and she surrounded herself with a band of ace musicians including bassist Brad Jones, trombonist Vincent Gardner and alto saxophonist Loren Stillman. Toward the end of their highly arranged set, Quintessence broke into a funky groove with Rosewoman playing an electric keyboard in the style of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

The wholly improvisational trio of Whit Dickey (drums), Eri Yamomoto (piano) and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter started out slowly but gained momentum, especially as Carter switched from flute to trumpet to clarinet to saxophone. Dickey’s drumming was flowing and Yamomoto’s piano work cerebral, but Carter demanded the audience’s full attention as he put on a bold display of spontaneous improvisation. Carter deserves more of a spotlight, and Vision Fest programmers would be wise to bring him back next year in a greater capacity.

Finally, much to the chagrin of the weak-hearted jazz fans, German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann closed the evening with his group, Full Blast. A virtual power trio with Brötzmann, electric bassist Mariano Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller, Full Blast lived up to its loud/fast moniker with a thundering racket that sent some of the Vision Fest faithful scurrying for the exits. Brötzmann’s brain-frying tenor screeds were imposing, the rhythm section pounding, and despite an occasional melodic interlude, his set was one full force gale and louder than love—the perfect way to finish up an evening of wild, diverse jazz performances.

With just one more night to go, I’m putting my dashiki and skullcap back in the closet and mourning the end of the 14th Vision Festival.

Film At 11: Petra Haden

There are so many reasons to love Petra Haden—former member of That Dog, creator of an a cappella version of The Who Sell Out, plus she once told us about how she went to Jane Fonda’s summer camp when she was a kid—that we refuse to be creeped out by the humans-in-tights landscape of this Toyota Prius commercial. Here Haden covers the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow”; she’s currently working on another a cappella album. Last year, she made us a mix tape.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq4nrmnqY9o

From The Desk Of Bob Mould: Coffee

bobmouldlogoBob Mould is a man always on the lookout for a new challenge. After Hüsker Dü (one of the most celebrated rock bands ever) folded in 1988, Mould would helm another powerful trio, Sugar, before beginning a fascinating, ongoing series of solo releases that have ranged from introspective to danceable, from melodic to nearly chaotic. The enigmatic guitar (and cultural) hero is finishing up what promises to be a fascinating memoir to be published next year and has just released a rock-solid solo disc, Life And Times. Read our new Q&A with him and earlier ones from 2008 and 2002. Mould will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.

kiosk_475

Mould: One of my main passions in life, since quitting drinking 23 years ago, is the consumption of coffee. It is my drug of choice, ingested on a daily basis, for hours each day. I know people who, when it comes to matters of the bean, are way more persnickety than I could ever be. The bean, the seed of the fruit that is plucked from the tree, processed and packaged in many flavors and wrappers. Some cities are more inclined to be outfitted with independent roasters and cafes, and for the past year, San Francisco has been my coffee heaven. I was first made aware of the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. kiosk in Hayes Valley, followed by Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission and, now, Four Barrel Coffee. Each company offers unique products and environments in which to savor their wares. For me, my choice is less about my proximity at any given time and more about personal mood. In that way, the coffee experience is less about convenience and brand loyalty and more about the implications of environment and socialization.